Bringing Begena Back to Life

Begena, a traditional ten stringed instrument mainly used in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, has long been a trademark of Ethiopia’s  liturgical music and traditional services. However, over the past few decades, there has been a decline in the number of students learning the art, leading to a decrease in the number of teachers and masters of the instruments. But a few individuals are now trying to bring back the art of Begena, on their own, as EBR’s Menna Asrat found.

Begena is one of the oldest instruments in Ethiopia. An integral part of the liturgical music of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Begena has become inextricably linked with the spiritual side of Ethiopian culture. In Ethiopia, the 10-string instrument traces its roots back to the adoption of Christianity in the fourth century, although variations of it have been used by ancient Israelites even before the birth of Jesus. Gradually, however, it disappeared to the point where it was considered an endangered art.

In fact, only very few people who have mastered the art such as Alemu Aga, are still teaching and performing in public. Since the early 1990s, Alemu has been one of a handful of people who perform all over the world, travelling to many countries with his Begena. Although the art of playing Begena seemed to be on the verge of vanishing, people like Sisay Demissie, 51, are trying to revive it.

Sisay used to live in Negelle Borena, in the state of Oromia. Before he got involved in the art, he was a teacher. But his love for the musical art led him to learn Begena making techniques and how to play it. In 2013, he moved to Addis full time and eventually opened the Sisay Begena and Instruments Training Institute.

“I’ve always been interested in Begena,” Sisay recalls. “I eventually started teaching myself how to play and then I started studying with Alemu Aga, a master of the Begena here in Addis Ababa. It was after that that I started manufacturing Begena and opened the school.”

Although there are other teachers in Addis who take on students privately, Sisay was the first to be granted technical and vocational institute status for his school, which is located in a nondescript house in Arada District. The school’s walls are decorated with large murals of the Ethiopian flag, and hung with traditional instruments, like Kirar, Masenko and of course Begena. Students sit on chairs arranged around the edge of the room in small groups of two or three, learning proper finger placement, and how to play traditional hymns and melodies. Many of them go on to use their skills during church services.

“There are schools run by the Orthodox Church. They offer classes outside of the normal school hours,” explains Sisay. “However, I believe that learning Begena requires more flexibility than that. I wanted to create a space where students could get personal attention.”

Adam Mulugeta is a 24 year old student of Begena at Sisay’s school. He came to Addis from Dallas, Texas in order to study the traditional instruments. “I’ve always been fascinated with Begena,” he says. “I started studying Masenko and Kirar and I thought that Begena would be challenging, even though I liked it. But my mother encouraged me to study it, and when I got a chance to come to Addis, I enrolled in a class.”

Like many of the students who learn Begena, Adam also spends time playing traditional instruments in church services and events.  “I think it’s really helpful to be able to see other students during the classes. It helps to see how the other students are improving and gauging how far we’ve come.”

Many teachers of the art agree that there are more students becoming interested in learning how to play Begena, but it is still not where they would hope it is. Selam Solomon has been teaching the instrument for the last seven years. She has seen a slight increase in the number of students learning Begena, with most of them being women. “We do have slightly more women than men studying, which is encouraging. The art isn’t at the level it was a few years ago, which is good. But it still has some way to go,” she explains.

Eleni Desta, 23, has been studying the instrument for six months.  She is one of the new wave of young females in the process of learning Begena. “It’s a way to quiet yourself,” she says. “Playing Begena really helps you in all aspects of your life.”

However, the efforts to keep the art of Begena alive seem to be coming only from individuals and the Orthodox Church, according to Sisay who asserts that the government has not been giving due attention to encouraging traditional arts. “It seems like the government doesn’t really care about helping to preserve traditional arts and instruments,” he argues. “As a result, reviving the art is becoming more difficult.”

The price of the instrument showed a dramatic increase in recent years. The instrument itself is made from a wooden frame, covered with cowhide and with strings made from sheep’s intestines. The level of decoration and intricacy of design varies from model to model. While around three years ago a Begena would cost around ETB2,500, now it costs around ETB3,000-ETB3,500. To make a single Begena requires 14 sheep’s intestines.

“The prices for the cowhide and sheep intestines have increased in the last few years. The parts that we use for the strings used to just be thrown out, but now there is a demand for it. It increases the overall price of the instrument. But we try to keep it reasonable, because the people learning with us tend to be young students without an income of their own,” adds Sisay.

Despite the escalating cost, prices for classes are on the low side. For instance, Sisay’s charges ETB75 for 90 minute sessions. “People of all ages are interested in learning. Students go from teenagers to people who are 80 years old and even older. I think everyone should do their part to bring Begena back to life,” concludes Sisay.

8th Year • Apr.16 - May.15 2019 • No. 73


Menna Asrat

Deputy Editor-inChief

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